HL Deb 28 November 1994 vol 559 cc473-6

2.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway asked Her Majesty's Government:

Having regard to the answer given on 25th October 1994 (HL WA 25) in clarification of previous answers given on 27th June 1994 (HL Deb. col. 526) and on 10th October 1994 (HL Deb. col. 708), when investigations by the Metropolitan Police War Crimes Unit in the 28 cases remaining under investigation since before 27th June 1994 were set in train; and whether consideration ought not to be given as to the introduction of a time-bar against institution of proceedings under the Act.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, there are now 24 cases under active investigation. Of those, 15 were reported by the Hetherington-Chalmers inquiry and investigations were started when the Metropolitan Police War Crimes Unit was established on 28th May 1991. Three other cases commenced on 10th July 1991 and one of each of the remaining cases started on 2nd June 1992, 11th February 1993, 7th April 1993, 8th December 1993, 21st January 1994 and 18th March 1994.

There is no statutory time-bar for laying of charges for murder or manslaughter in this country, and that applies no less when such acts are committed as war crimes.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I thank my noble friend very much for the Answer that she has given, which shows that 16, if I heard her right, of the men who are now under investigation were under investigation already in 1988 and 1989 when the Hetherington-Chalmers investigations took place. Was it not as a result of that report that the War Crimes Act was introduced to have trials on the evidence on which it then stood?

In view of the fact that those investigations are still continuing and as we are told by the Government that no end may be predicted to them, will they keep an open mind as to whether some form of limitation on proceedings might be introduced?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I can confirm that the number is 15 and not 16. Fifteen of the cases that I mentioned were reported by the Hetherington-Chalmers inquiry, as the evidence then stood.

We have never had a statute of limitations for crimes of murder in this country. Therefore, we do not regard ourselves at liberty to disregard evidence which has been or may be uncovered. As with any other case, a prosecution would be brought only if there was considered to be sufficient evidence and the prosecution would be in the public interest. Moreover, an accused person can apply for the proceedings against him to be stayed on the grounds of delay or abuse of process.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, will the Minister inform me whether it would be usual on the part of this Government for Ministers in the Home Office to interfere in any way with operational decisions of the Metropolitan Police or with the speed or otherwise of the Crown Prosecution Service?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it would not only be not usual; it would be improper.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what is the age of the oldest person under investigation; what is the age of the youngest person under investigation; where and when the alleged crimes took place; and whether they all involved murder?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am not able to answer such a detailed question from the Dispatch Box. If I am able to answer it, I shall write to the noble Lord. So long as there are serious crimes to be pursued, it must remain a matter for the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and, at the end of the day, the advice given to the Attorney-General by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is there no time limit at all on the pursuit of people alleged to have committed offences 50 years ago?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is worth recording just how much progress has been made. Indeed, it was recorded by my noble friend Lord Ferrers in regard to a previous Question. In fact, 369 cases had been investigated by the Metropolitan Police War Crimes Unit. The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute in 233 of those cases; 112 persons who were subject to investigation have since died; 24 investigations remain with the police, while nine cases are with the CPS at present. It will be a matter for them—and, at the end of the day, for the Attorney-General—as to whether prosecutions should be brought against those people.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, I accept that the noble Baroness may be right in saying that the answer to the noble Lord's suggestion of a time-bar may be that a trial judge can order that a trial should not proceed because of the risk of prejudice resulting from great delay. However, is there not a real risk in this case that judges will proceed on the basis that Parliament could only have passed the Act if Parliament intended the great delay in prosecuting war crimes committed during the last war to be disregarded by the courts?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the matter as to whether the time delay should be regarded or disregarded by the courts must be for the courts. It will be for the police to pursue their normal investigations and for the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether the evidence supporting those cases is strong enough for the case to be pursued. However, at the end of the day it will be for the Attorney-General to give a final judgment. It will then be up to the courts to take all of the factors into consideration. They may or may not consider that the time delay is a factor for dismissing the case.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, in view of the very satisfactory reply that she has given, does my noble friend the Minister think it appropriate for the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, not to trouble the House with further proceedings on his Bill?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it must be a matter for my noble friend as to whether he wishes to pursue the Bill. However, I believe that I have today made it very clear that we believe that these are matters for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. We believe that Parliament has had its say on the matter.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in addition to the powerful legal arguments against prosecutions, there are also historical reasons? Does she recall that for three years after the war the government of the day obtained the execution and imprisonment of thousands of war criminals; indeed, more than 200 from British courts in Germany alone? However, in 1948, the then government, with the support of all parties, decided that a sufficient lesson had been taught and that war crimes trials should end. How is it possible that this Government should reverse that policy and encourage war crimes trials 46 years after the government of the day, with all-party support, took the other view?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, if I may be so bold, it was Parliament that pronounced, albeit by the use of the Parliament Act, that such cases should be pursued. It must now be a matter for the courts and for the Crown Prosecution Service.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind the fact that there was a massive majority for the course of action that the Government are now taking? When murder has been committed, we cannot have civilised living unless we pursue the murderers.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, for his remarks. It is a most important principle. To put a time limit on the pursuit of murderers and serious criminals would be a very serious action to take. The noble Viscount is also right to say that there was a massive majority in another place which I believe justified the use of the Parliament Act in the circumstances.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is my noble friend aware—

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Lord Campbell of Alloway

So be it, my Lords.